'Cardiac Craft' has Neuheisel's emotional compass spinning

October, 23, 2008
10/23/08
9:42
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel has been captured blistering quarterback Kevin Craft on the sideline more than a few times. He's thought about yanking Craft a couple of times, too.

Craft's spotty play has driven Neuheisel to distraction.

 
 Harry How/Getty Images
 Kevin Craft rallied the Bruins to a comeback win against Tennessee.

Case in point: The first half against Stanford.

First, Craft was intercepted on a second-and-9 pass from the Stanford 12-yard line, killing a scoring opportunity. Then Craft fumbled on a sack on the Bruins 29, which set up Stanford's second TD.

"I was concerned that Kevin was having trouble focusing on everything that needed to be focused on," Neuheisel explained. "Early in the game, there were some mistakes that I didn't quite understand."

But then... poof. Craft led the Bruins on a 77-yard drive for a field goal as time expired in the first half.

Craft has been feast or famine this year, but he's also been clutch.

Recall the comeback win over Tennessee in which Craft bounced back from four -- FOUR! -- first-half interceptions to play brilliantly after the break, particularly while leading two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.

He did the same against Stanford. He put his first-half foibles aside and led the Bruins on a 10-play, 87-yard drive for the winning TD. On the drive, he went 6-for-8 for 60 yards and tossed the winning pass from 7 yards out with 10 seconds to play.

"I don't know why there is a period of struggle early in games, but for whatever reason he does calm down when it seems like it should be the most difficult to be calm," Neuheisel said. "You just got to believe those last-minute heroics are going to add to his confidence and hopefully we'll get that confident quarterback for 60 minutes this week."

Of course, both of those finely Crafted comebacks came in the friendly confines of the Rose Bowl. The Bruins visit California on Saturday, where they haven't won since 1998. They also are riding a five-game road losing streak and have lost 12 of 15 on the road.

Craft clearly takes pride in his late-game heroics, but he's as stumped as Neuheisel about why things don't go as well early.

"We're trying to figure that out," said Craft, who transferred in the spring from Mt. San Antonio Junior College. "I don't think there's a real answer for that."

Craft's early struggles are part of a team-wide issue. UCLA has only scored 21 points in the first quarter and has been outscored a stunning 90-35 in the second. The Bruins, in fact, have been outscored in every quarter but the fourth.

And, no, it's not like they pile up points late while they're down by large margins. UCLA has been blown out twice -- 59-0 at BYU and 31-10 vs. Arizona -- and didn't score a fourth-quarter point in either game.

Craft clearly isn't a fan of the harangues from Neuheisel, and the coach has expressed regret a couple of times for hounding Craft. Neuheisel has become the bad cop while low-key offensive coordinator Norm Chow, a consistent advocate for Craft, is the good cop.

Craft said he knows it's not personal, and as a coach's son -- his father, Tom, used to coach at San Diego State -- he understands how things work.

"I know sometimes they've got to let out a little bit of frustration," he said. "You've got to sort through the yelling aspect and get to what he's actually saying and take that away from the conversation."

Craft is a mellow dude. He keeps his emotional cards close to his chest. And sometimes that sphinx-like demeanor gets to Neuheisel, who wants to know what's going on inside.

"He really says nothing back [when Neuheisel gets on Craft], which is what gets me even more upset," Neuheisel said. "He just sits and listens and is probably wondering to himself why is this crazy person losing it here."

While Neuheisel wants, and will eventually demand, more consistency, he admires "Cardiac Craft's" resiliency.

As for Craft, well, he just wants the ball in his hands with a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.

"It's kind of a defining moment as a quarterback," he said. "If the pressure is on, I like it. We don't necessarily want to be in that situation, but it's something I've always kind of been able to do -- when the team is behind, I can bring them back."

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